If ACT 277of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) Legislation from 2017 had a face, it would be that of Roderick Thomas. ACT 277 ensures that most people sentenced to life as juveniles receive an opportunity to be considered for parole after serving at least 25 years in prison. Oftentimes, we only see the written form of the law, not the people the laws help.  I was fortunate enough to do both. 

Roderick was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 for his part in a robbery during which two people were shot and one person was killed.  Roderick served 44 years of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). He is now 61 years old and he takes full responsibility for his actions.  Roderick, knowing he was serving life in prison, did all that he could to “better himself” while at Angola.  When he was 20 years old, he obtained his GED and received a certification in paralegal studies.  He worked hard in the carpentry shop at Angola for many years and one day hopes to have a side business of restoring furniture.  

He told me that in prison “if you give up, it’s over.” With the help of the Parole Project, Roderick was granted parole based on his record while incarcerated and his accomplishments in prison.  As a condition of his parole, Roderick had to spend at least 90 days at the Refinery Mission (Refinery) to help him adjust to life outside of prison. Through Refinery, Roderick has grown deeper in his faith and his motto has become “God first.” The Refinery helped Roderick obtain his birth certificate, which took over seven months because his last name was not listed as Thomas on his original birth certificate. He told me he learned patience during those seven months and received much needed support from the Refinery. He had to learn how to use a computer, cellphone, a debit card and even how to operate the soda machine at a fast food restaurant.   Today, at 61, for the first time in his life he has a driver’s license and a bank account.  

Roderick made use of the programs available to him at Angola and is now making use of the reentry services provided by the Refinery. While he still faces many challenges,  I know as a former probation and parole officer that people can change and they should be given a second chance. I first met Roderick in March 2018 at the Refineryin Opelousas, Louisiana.  He was the first ACT 277 parolee I supervised.  I didn’t know what to expect and I’m certain Roderick didn’t either.  He was a model parolee who was serious about taking full opportunity of the second chance that he had been given.   

The passage of ACT 277 has allowed Roderick a second chance at life.  He is making use of the reentry services available to him and is learning how to live in a world that is so different from the world he left in the mid 70s. In addition to community resources like the Refinery, Roderick will be on parole supervision for the rest of his life. ACT 277 takes into account public safety, saves taxpayers thousands of dollars, and allows Roderick and many other “juvenile lifers” another chance to be contributing members to society.